Ordinarily, I would consider Ulysses by James Joyce the opposite of everything Superversive stands for. However, a reader contacted me and asked if I would consider a guest blog from an alternate point of view.
So, here, without further ado, is Gabriel Mamola discussing James Joyces Ulysses from a Superverisve point of view:
This is not how you draw a straight line:
Nor is it a very good circle. What it is, however, is a decent celtic knot, a pattern characteristic for its complexity and its, well, its celtic-ness. And let it here stand as a metaphor for another piece of work notable for these same characteristics: James Joyce’s Ulysses.
My intention in writing this guest blog is to present a slight apologia for a book that has been so successfully appropriated by mainstream (read: worthless) academia as to appear to be something close to its foundational text. I am not interested in delving into the reasons for this here. I am instead interested in presenting Ulysses as a super-versive text and offering a few simple but novel ways of thinking about the book that may perhaps allow a reader to circumvent the sterile cloud of academic jargon that surrounds it, as well as offering a few assurances that Ulysses is indeed a book worth the investment it requires.
So, thirteen (superversive) ways of looking at Ulysses. (Not really. I only have four, five if you count the whole celtic knot, complexity-as-a-peculiarly-celtic-artistic-ideal thing above. But I digress.)
1. Ulysses is a deeply moral book.
While Leopold Bloom (the hero of the novel, for those who have not yet read it) is touted by the currently established amoral literati for being the paragon of modern, shlubby, slightly perverse anti-heroism, this is an outright misrepresentation. The actions for which the narrative itself calls us to praise Mr. Bloom include:
Forgiving a man who has gravely insulted him to his face and in front of others.
Raising alms for a recent widow who has no other means of support.
Doing an honest day’s work.
Refusing to think of himself as a victim (and refusing to act like one).
Being an attentive and loving father.
Admonishing a hateful hypocrite.
Helping a blind man cross a busy street.
Empathizing with EVERYONE, especially women trapped in difficult situations beyond their control.
Taking care of a self-destructive young man undergoing an emotional and spiritual crisis while undergoing his own emotional and spiritual crisis.
Forgiving his unfaithful wife by never losing sight of why he fell in love with her in the first place.
Granted that these are little things. But they are also the work of one man in one day who is not even going out of his way to be kind and empathetic. While certainly not the “classical” hero, and while certainly not perfect, Leopold Bloom is a good man, and one whose virtues are only visible in the day-to-day humdrum of life. But speaking of classicism…
2. Ulysses is nonetheless a very classical book.
Joyce’s inspiration for Ulysses came not from desire to mock Homer but from a desire to enter into the epic tradition in the way that he (Joyce) felt his talents and artistic calling warranted. In seeking to present a (not really so) ordinary Dublin man as a new Odysseus, Joyce was working within what he saw as a tradition of “all-round” or fully three dimensional characters like Odysseus who are admixtures of dubious motives and unmistakable heroism. The “sordid” details of everyday life included in Ulysses are as much Joyce’s tribute to Homer’s ancient realism as they are a humorous subversion of literary norms in the comic tradition of Swift or Carroll.
But Joyce liked him some Virgil too. Indeed, Joyce’s career was a self-conscious attempt to follow the Virgilian Poetic Vocation followed also by Dante, Spenser and Milton, in which a man cuts his teeth writing his Pastorals (Eclogues/Georgics, Lycidas, Shepheardes Calendar, Dubliners/Portrait) before moving on to his Epic (Aeneid, Paradise Lost, Fairie Queene, Ulysses). This is a pattern, interestingly enough, that Tolkien himself accidentally followed with his epic Rings trilogy coming after the simpler, more pastoral Hobbit.
As for the philosophical foundation of the book, it is Aristotelian and Thomistic (in its own peculiar way), which leads me to my next point which is that…
3. Ulysses is a very ordered book.
John C. Wright recently wrote a blog-post in defense of the craftsmanship and artistry of Ayn Rand. Much of what he said in defense of Atlas Shrugged (which I have not read) could very easily be applied to Ulysses through a switcheroo of the names and gender-specific pronouns. I (sort of) quote:
“I am aghast that even those who disliked the book would dismiss its craftsmanship. There is no one who has even ATTEMPTED anything this ambitious and universal since Milton tried to marry Moses and Homer in his PARADISE LOST.
[James Joyce] is the only novelist I have ever heard of who invented [his] own theory of aesthetic principles and then wrote a huge and hugely successful novel according to those principles without any smallest deviation from them.
There is an old saying. “Even Homer nods” which means even the greatest of poets makes lapses in craftsmanship. The saying is not true in this case. [He] makes no lapses, that is, not a single page has a word [he] does not intend to be there for a reason [he] could no doubt articulate. This reader or that may not care for what [he] is trying to articulate, but even a bored or hostile reader, if [he] is honest must be astonished at the precision of a book like a vast garden of many acres without a leaf or a grass blade out of place.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Make that garden Dublin on June 16th, 1904, and every leaf or blade of grass a cobblestone or newspaper and there you go.
As for those aesthetic principles that Joyce developed? Well, they are the same ones the T. S. Eliot would use and further develop for his little poem The Waste Land. (http://people.virginia.edu/~jdk3t/eliotulysses.htm)
But, ultimately, what I really want to say is that…
4. Ulysses is a very good book.
So sure, modern life sucks. And I will be the first to defend the value of so-called “escapist” or genre literature as a real and effective antidote to it or weapon against it. But it is not the ONLY weapon. There is also transformation, transmutation, the alchemy of art to work upon base materials. Joyce is a master alchemist and Ulysses is his masterwork and magnum opus both.
Now, to conclude, I will say that to call Ulysses a novel is slightly misleading. If you sit down with the book expecting Little Dorrit, you are going to be disappointed. And yes, it can be quite obscure. But no one thinks any less of you for looking up damned obscure13th century Florentines, so don’t be embarrassed for consulting Wikipedia while reading Ulysses.
For if you give to the book the same attention you would give to The Divine Comedy or Paradise Lost, you will be rewarded in like fashion, as you will receive both entertainment and edification proportionate to the effort spent appreciating and learning from what Joyce has accomplished.